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Great Benin Walls and Moats: A world wonder

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By Abraham Adekunle

It is the second largest man-made structure after China’s Great Wall.

The Benin Kingdom, also known as the Edo Kingdom or Benin Empire, was one of the oldest and most developed areas in coastal West Africa. Its capital was Edo, which is now known as Benin City in Edo State. Benin Kingdom’s original name at the time of its creation in the 1st millennium was Igodomigodo and its ruler was called Ogiso – the ruler of the sky. However, this Benin Kingdom grew out of the original around 11th century AD. The kingdom was known for its architecture, some of which are Impluvium which are used to store rainwater in the walls and moats.

A series of earthworks made up of ramparts and moats, known as the Walls of Benin, called “Iya” in the Edo language. A rampart is a defensive wall of a castle or walled city, having a broad top with a walkway and typically a stone parapet. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Archaeology, in fortification architecture, a rampart is a length of bank or wall forming part of the defensive boundary of a castle, hillfort, settlement or other fortified site. On the other hand, a moat is a deep, wide ditch surrounding a castle, fort, or town, typically filled with water and intended as a defense against attacks.

These walls are larger second only to the Great Wall of China.

Ramparts ranged in size from shallow traces to gigantic 20-meter-high around Benin City. The walls covered a border distance of 16,000 km and enclosed a total 6500 km2 of community land. Its construction is estimated to have started at about 800 AD. It was a defense mechanism created by Oba Oguola and Oba Ewuare I to protect the territorial integrity of the Benin Kingdom. The former used it for defense, while the latter used it to prevent indigenes from running away. The moats were in two folds – inner and outer, each created for a specific purpose.

Depths of the moats varied, but it was said to be 60 meters deep in some areas and less than that in others. The moats were constructed through human labor since there was no machinery to execute such activities. At the time, the monument was considered the world’s largest earthwork. The high walls made it difficult for invaders – those who attempted to climb over were easily noticed by the soldiers. The Guinness Book of World Records (1974) describes the walls of Benin City as the world’s second largest man-made structure after the Great Wall of China.

Structures were built to exhibit certain defensive features.

The moats were heavily guarded around the clock. Invaders were stopped as they could be seen whilst trying to get through and were killed or captured by the Benin soldiers on guard. The ramparts which were steep banks of earth stopped invaders from climbing over them as sand avalanche could bury them and sand on their weapons could disable them. The high walls made it difficult for attackers to invade because it made them good target for the soldiers’ spears and poisoned arrows. The very high outer walls provided a thick shield around the city and the nine gates of the walls restricted access to the city.

For the Benin people, their security was assured. The Portuguese ship captain Lorenzo Pinto summarized his thoughts in 1674 as thus, “Great Benin, where the King resides is larger than Lisbon. It is so well organized that theft is unknown, and people live in such poor security that they have no doors to their houses.” It should be noted that it was the period that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was booming and raids on towns and villages were rampant. This defense mechanism ensured that in addition to the Benin tribal marks on the forehead, no Benin person was ever enslaved for the purpose of the slave trade.

Moats are gradually going extinct as they are desecrated by people.

Speaking to the press, Chief Omo-Osagie Utetenagiabi, the Obadolagbonyi of Benin, said that to date, the moat still holds something strong for the indigenes. However, he lamented that most parts of the moat had been desecrated and converted to living areas by people, while other areas had been filled with sand. He called on the United Nations and the Edo State Government to help in reconstructing the moat because it could be of great help, particularly now that flood ravages the state.

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